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A Syrian Student’s Fragile Hope for Higher Education

The following is by Xanthe Ackerman, a senior fellow at the Syria Research and Evaluation Organization.
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Mohiaddin Binanah, the interim minister of education for the Syrian opposition movement, examines a Syrian high-school student’s graduation test. Photo by Xanthe Ackerman.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Muhammad Adib woke up early, ate breakfast, and walked the bombed-out streets of rebel-controlled Aleppo in Syria to a testing center for male high-school students.

Muhammad showed his student identification card to officials from the Syrian opposition, known as Etilaf.  He took his place in a classroom and, at 8:00 am, began his philosophy exam, one of six tests he’ll need to take to graduate high school.

Muhammad is one of 14,000 Syrian students in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and liberated parts of Syria who took the high-school graduation exam administered by Etilaf’s Ministry of Education. Etilaf reports that the majority of these students are inside Syria. They risked travel on as many as 10 separate days to take the different sections of the exam between June 10 and June 29.

For students like Muhammad, taking the exam is a defiant, though some may say desperate, act of hope. For even if they pass the Etilaf-administered tests, they cannot enroll in universities in government-controlled areas, and there are no universities operating in the liberated areas. What’s more, outside Syria, foreign governments and universities have been reluctant to recognize the Etilaf test as proof of secondary-school completion.

The official Syrian test is internationally recognized. Yet taking it is rarely an option for Syrians who live in liberated areas or as refugees. For students inside the country, movement across checkpoints and the front line carries physical risk. Those living outside the country would be required to travel back to Syria to take the exam. Many lack the required documentation to do so.

Muhammad’s story is a reminder of how important a future in higher education is to students from war-torn Syria—and a reflection of the need for foreign governments and others to help.

The night before his first exam, Muhammad called me on Skype from the office of his school, Ein Jalout. The Internet connection from Aleppo was poor and the call dropped dozens of times. In flashes, Muhammad recounted the intermittent bombings that scarred his senior year. Barrel bombs killed 18 students and two teachers in April. The classes resumed a week later in a residential building nearby.

The principal of Muhammad’s school, Abo Hazan (his nom de guerre), talked to me about how the teachers at Ein Jalout address the students’ psychological burden. The teachers tell the students to stay on the path of their martyred classmates, the path of scholarship. For the students at Ein Jalout, studying for the exam that marks the culmination of their high-school careers has been an act of solidarity.

I accompanied Mohiaddin Binanah, Etilaf’s interim minister of education, to an exam center in Gaziantep, an industrial city in Turkey an hour from the Syrian border. Etilaf set up this exam center and 23 others in Turkey. At the Istiklal School for Syrians, the students were orderly and solemn, breaking concentration only when the minister’s entourage came into view. The minister walked the aisles of each room, inspecting students’ papers at random. While we drank flower tea in a back room, an examination official brought the minister updates from the other centers in the region.

Later I talked again with Abo Hazan, who helps Etilaf proctor exams in Aleppo. He says that Etilaf is doing a better job of running exams than Syrian officials are. He showed me a picture posted on Facebook of students in government-controlled Syria crowded around a table at an exam center, presumably cheating off the same page.

After the exam in Gaziantep, I sat with a group of five students who did not know if their exams would be accepted in Turkey or anywhere else. They had all had heard harrowing stories like that of Hassan Abbas. Last year, Hassan’s teachers told him that Turkish universities would accept his Etilaf certificate. When he heard that Turkey was offering scholarships for Syrians, he assumed he would qualify given his high marks and fluent Turkish. In order to apply, he brought his certificate to the Turkish municipal office of education for approval. What he saw was deflating: Students from government-controlled areas had their certificates approved. His Etilaf degree was not.

But last week, Etilaf’s diplomatic and administrative efforts in Turkey paid off. The Turkish Ministry told me that it will now recognize the Etilaf degree in all provinces of Turkey. Etilaf hopes that this decision could sway other countries hosting Syrians in the region and in Europe.

At the Aleppo testing center, when the bell announced the end of the philosophy exam, the proctor collected Muhammad’s paper. As he filed out, a bomb fell on the building next door, injuring two students.

Muhammad read on Facebook that France is offering scholarships to 40 Syrian students. Knowing the impossible odds, he had dreamed that someday he might study French literature abroad. Now that Turkey will recognize his degree, there is something more to hope for.

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